Grace Paley is one of the few writers whose work I could pick up, with no name or other identification on the cover, and know instantly that it is hers. Haley’s voice is so distinct, so recognizable in its abruptness, its stops and starts, its clever and heartfelt truth laced with humor. Her dialogue, in particular, drags you onto the New York street or into the cramped flat with her characters.
Comes from the Bronx to begin with. Comes from my mommy and daddy. It comes from the language around me…I have this way of describing the voice if you want to call it that, or anybody else’s voice, which to really work has to come from two places really, and the first place I’ve just described which is home, really, and that’s one ear, see. I always say, ‘That’s why we have two ears.’ The other ear is for literature, and so that’s been in my ear from Mother Goose on–the traditions of English literature particularly with other sounds in translation coming in. But those two ears I think make everybody’s voice.”
The interviewer replies, “Everyone’s got two ears but they don’t write like you,” to which Paley quips, “Well, they don’t come from the Bronx, what can I say?”
Wattle says Paley’s voice was there from he beginning–in her very first published story, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” which appeared in Paley’s first story collection, The Little Disturbances of Man. Haley says she had wanted to write prose, but had been writing poetry instead, until the moment when she wrote the first line of Goodbye and Good Luck. “I’d been writing poetry up until the moment I wrote that line. I wanted to write prose, I wanted to write stories, but that particular line resonated for me, and when I began to write it really was like a breakthrough for me, because my poetry was nothing like that at all. When I started writing the stories it was really like a new sound for me in my head.”
Paley said there were a number of reasons she wanted to write prose instead of poetry, but one of the primary reasons was that she was spending a lot of time with women who were doing exactly what she did–raising their children. She was interested in the lives of those women she knew from her kids’ preschool, and in the lives of the women in her family.
In the interview, Paley also talks motherhood, the friends she had who lost their children to AIDs and drugs and other tragedies, and “the terrible edge of life, the tragic fact you can’t avoid”:
We all bring our children up, especially in this country, with such belief and determination, but belief that everything will be well–if they’re fed well and so forth, if they’re white middle class children, certainly–they’ll be okay. Of course other families know from the very beginning that their children are very vulnerable, no matter what decade they’re living in.
Haley says, surprisingly, that she was considered “a dead bust” in her family “after being a very smart little child…I never made it through school the right way. I never finished school. I never got a profession.”
Fortunately for us, Paley’s profession was writing.
Read Paley’s inimitable stories in The Little Disturbances of Man and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and learn about her life–personal, political, and literary–in her wonderful memoir, Just As I Thought.
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